Can Cops Search Your Cellphone? Get A Warrant, Supreme Court Rules

If you were wondering how your cellphone would be treated during an arrest, here's your answer: The Supreme Court ruled police cannot search cellphones without warrants during arrests, striking down a decision of the California Court of Appeals. The high court was unanimous in its ruling, granting a major win to privacy rights activists. But the justices did note that their ruling will inevitably hinder the practices of law enforcement officials in the future.

"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. "Privacy comes at a cost."

The Supreme Court looked at two cases on this issue: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, a Massachusetts case. At the center of both cases were arrestees petitioning that their Fourth Amendment rights were violated because their cellphones were searched without warrants and later admitted as evidence at their trials.

Riley v. California

San Diego resident David Riley was pulled over by police in 2009 for having expired license plates. After searching his car, authorities found two hand guns. A police officer then seized a cellphone from Riley's pants pocket during the arrest. When the officer accessed the phone — without a search warrant — he found terms associated with a street gang.

Two hours later, a detective further analyzed the phone, finding evidence linking Riley to a drive-by shooting that occurred a few weeks earlier. That evidence was used against Riley in court, and he was convicted for shooting at an occupied vehicle, attempted murder, assault with an automatic weapon, as well as gang-related crimes.

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Riley's lawyers tried blocking the evidence before the case went to trial, but their efforts failed. In the meantime, the California Supreme Court ruled in a separate case that police were allowed to search the cellphone associated with someone who they arrested. Because of that ruling, the California Appeals Court later upheld Riley's conviction.

United States v. Wurie

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This Boston-based case revolved around an older cellphone model: the flip-phone. In 2007, Boston police saw a drug transaction going down between a dealer named Brima Wurie and his buyer. The Boston police confronted the buyer and, after finding two bags of crack cocaine on him, asked him about the identity of the drug dealer. The authorities later tracked down Wurie and arrested him, seizing his two cellphones in the process.

At the police station, officers flipped open Wurie's phone and began looking through his call history. A number labeled "my house" kept calling the phone, which had a picture of a woman holding a baby as its background. The police were able to trace the "my house" number to Wurie's house in South Boston. During questioning, Wurie denied living in South Boston, but police went to his house and, with a search warrant in hand, found a stash of crack and marijuana, as well as a gun and ammunition.

The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals took up Wurie's case, overturning two counts on his conviction. The court decided that search-incident-to-arrest exception of the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement doesn't authorize the warrantless search of a cellphone and its contents.

The Supreme Court's Ruling

The Supreme's Court ruling, which effectively overturns both Riley's and Wurie's convictions, ushers the high court into the modern age. Even Chief Justice Roberts admitted that modern cellphones are "now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."

According to the Supreme Court, modern cellphones and smartphones contain such a vast amount of data and information — and are basically digital documents of one's personal existence —that the old rules of police searches and warrants cannot be applied. Although police can make warrantless searches when they need to protect the lives of police officers or the destruction of evidence, the justices found that cellphones should be protected from routine police inspection.

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Justice Roberts went on to say that the modern role of cellphones have of course changed. "They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers," Roberts wrote. His view differs greatly from the Justice Department, which supports warrantless cellphone searches because they consider them to be similar to wallets and purses (which can be searched during an arrest).

So, where does this leave us? Well, for now, your cellphone won't immediately be used against you during an arrest.

Image: Flickr/NabeWise